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The Problem of Occupational Stress

Work related stress is making news these days both in high profile newspapers and in human resources related publications. And for good reason. Rising numbers of mental illness claims are costing companies both money and productivity and while talk of corporate wellness programs has been plentiful, very few companies actually have implemented one.

Recently in March the Conference Board of Canada held a conference on "Workplace Health and Well Being in Toronto" where delegates from among various industries got together to hear presentations and discuss some of the latest findings. Virtually all of the 110 or so delegates were from companies that either sold service in the wellness industry or already had some sort of program in place - clearly the enlightened few.

Stress, anxiety, and depression are the top concerns that plague companies and employees. The Canadian statistics aren't pretty, even for a small country by population.

In 2002:
92 million work days lost
avg. 9 days lost (up from 8 in 2,000)
$16 billion in lost productivity measured by cost of lost time only
indirect costs are estimated at 2-3 times that or $33 billion

Where does all that stress come from? A number of factors, but the most predictive of stress was the employee's relationship with the immediate supervisor. Apparently good management pays off. Bad management costs money.

One of the drivers of stress according to Mr. Joseph Ricciuti from Watson Wyatt, a leading health management firm in North America, is the level of productive engagement of employees which includes job satisfaction, effective management, innovation support, employee confidence, health related benefits and compensation satisfaction. Relevant predictors of stress levels include turnover rate, absenteeism rate and productivity rate.

A significant emphasis was placed on "presenteeism", an employee who is at work and present in the mental and emotional sense. It seems that a good number of workers who are on the job have their priorities focused elsewhere. Even if they are physically at work, they are not fully engaged in what they are doing, leading to downgrades in productivity.

Worthy of mention is that in the U.K. companies can now be sued for causing unnecessary stress. The test of proof is a survey showing a majority of employees are affected by high effort demands and that these demands are offset by high management control leading to levels of extreme frustration. No such legal mechanism exists here in Canada. Workers compensation boards have begun to recognize stress claims in certain circumstances. Prior to this they were very difficult to justify and prove.

Costs aside, what is interesting is that for every dollar that is invested in fighting stress companies generally get a return of 3-6 dollars, showing that prevention pays both tangibly and intangibly. So why still the problem? It would seem a due diligence duty to have a stress management program and wellness program. One problem is that significantly stressed or depressed employees tend to be off work for weeks or months. After an initial 8 to 10 days of absence or illness, insurance and benefits programs kick in to bear the costs, so effectively the costs disappear in the benefits programs. Then the employee becomes a patient of the government paid (or rather our paid) medical system. Therefore the costs beyond the first few days are passed on to the public health care system.

One of the other factors that influences employee health is a sedentary lifestyle. With computers and sedentary jobs replacing the old work world people have become more accustomed to less physical and less healthy levels of daily activity. Complicate this with poor dietary choices, fast foods, and commutes, this factor alone can contribute significantly to the stress problem.

The rest of the problem, unsatisfied work experiences that lead to people feeling busier than ever but unfulfilled is easy to understand. Companies, still holdovers to the factory mind-set of productivity, have not changed too much since industrial times. Much of the work now produced is intellectual not physical which requires a different set of expectations. More expectations of productivity, when the political environments and cultures of companies are less than happy, can lead to frustrated and burnt out workers who don't feel appreciated.

Human beings are not machines, after a project that has been all consuming and requiring overtime and strenuous effort they need to recharge. They need to be stimulated in the mind and the heart. They need play, control over their work and results without unnecessary management interference. To do this successfully requires a completely different management style than in the industrial age and different roles for managers, like coaching and mentoring. In many ways the highly productive workforce requires a complete reversal of the traits industrial managers were known for.

Ontario still leads the pack for the highest level of stress in Canada. Why? It has the most workaholic culture in Canada particularly in the Toronto region. Add an average 1 hour or more each way for commute and you have a person spending many difficult hours at work with very little left over for family and friends. It is not necessarily the marginal workers that are suffering. High performers are also affected. The problem is, the declaration of stress carries with it a very serious career stigma, so it is still not likely to be discussed among peers or at work, especially at a higher responsibility level.

So there is a lot left to be done and a number of good examples of wellness programs to choose from. One of the most significant aspects of a wellness programs is to have a good employee health survey completed by employees with encouragement by management which can highlight early warning signs. Typically this applies to larger established companies who are the most likely to have a comprehensive health benefit system, employee assistance programs, family benefits such as extended leave to care for ill family members, children and elders. With the focus of employee changing in Canada, these are the organizations from which many capable employees have already been downsized.

We know where the solutions lie. Occupational stress is not an insurmountable problem. It's one we can learn from. Simply, wellness pays. Good employees are well worth keeping and when people are engaged in their work, everybody wins.

Arupa Tesolin, owner of the training firm Intuita, is a consultant, speaker, seminar leader and author of The Intuita 3-Minute Solutions for Innovation, Intuition, Vision & Stress. Her numerous international publications on intuition in business have established her as a thought leader in this field. She is currently working on a new book entitled "Becoming An Intuitive Organization". Contact her at www.intuita.com, intuita@intuita.com or 905.271.7272.

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